The Wild

I am a slow thinker. Very slow. The older student who mentored me and my fellow first year philosophy students in 1980 told us to be happy with our choice: while in mathematics one had to do one’s important work before thirty (as the young brain is best in solving difficult mathematical problems), a philosopher most likely would produce his best work after fifty. He was right. Well, I don’t know whether I will produce much work, but he was certainly right that after fifty one finally has read enough to make meaningful concatenations, see the deeper lying problems and work out a more or less original view. So….

…only after having written my post on Teilhard de Chardin, and while rereading Norman Lewis’ The Missionaries, did it suddenly dawn on me why The Savage Mind had felt like a liberation when I discovered it in, I think 1979. I must be honest: this book I got also from my father’s library, as I had The Phenomenon of Man. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ structural anthropology provides, I see now, nothing less than an alternative for evolutionary schemes in cultural studies. Lévi-Strauss opposes the view that hunter-gatherer peoples (or those who do some very limited subsistence farming) are less developed than those peoples who live in villages and cities, and live from farming, trade and industry. They are not stuck in an earlier phase of evolution, they are contemporary with us, who live modern lives.

Of course this liberated me, as I always had felt something to be wrong with the evolutionary scheme which was proposed to me as a child to understand human ways of life. Because next to being exposed to the children’s books on evolution, the visits to prehistoric caves, and the collection of ossified bones in the living room, I read children’s novels on ‘savage’ peoples who lived in jungles – and who did not appear to be more primitive than us. On the contrary: the ‘Indians’ were masters of moving through the forest without noise, and they lived in peaceful, harmonious societies, inspired by contacts with the spiritual world. If they were backward in technology, they were ahead of us in those aspects, for which I admired and envied them.

Lévi-Strauss now offered a model to study those peoples by fitting their cultural expressions in patterns of variation and opposition, instead of judging those expressions according to their measure of backwardness. And he gave his work the provocative title (in French) ‘Savage Thinking’ – which made his work one of the earliest tokens of what Latour has called ‘symmetrical anthropology’ – as it stuck the opposite adjective on modern cultural expressions: tamed thinking. As ‘they’ were like the wild beasts (as missionaries and colonialists often thought), ‘we’ are nothing but domesticated humans. Rather dull, obedient, uniform, like our cows who have no names but numbers.

There is an earlier writer who tried to be symmetrical in his approach – not an anthropologist, but an amateur philosopher who founded what has been called intercultural philosophy: the missionary Placide Tempels, who used an even more provocative title for his 1946 book Bantu Philosophy – granting the Bantu people, who were considered a primitive people by his religious colleagues and  the colonialist entrepreneurs and politicians in Africa, not only thinking but philosophy! But Tempels was a lucky exception of his kind (and still of course criticized for writing from a Eurocentric frame of mind), who tried to do right to the culture he encountered. And although Lewis has been criticized for romanticizing his travel stories a bit, his biting criticism of the role of missionaries in the genocidal activities of the large companies clearing the jungles in South America from people to have a free hand in destroying and mining the land, and his analysis of the unfeeling attitude of modern capital and its slaves toward ‘the wild’ are too convincing to ignore.

There is a connection between evolutionary theory and the destruction of, say, the Amazon – between the lack of general interest in aboriginal peoples and our consumption of cheap consumer goods. This is not only bad because it violates the principle of justice, the extinction of the wild also robs the world of  the knowledge of alternative ways of living, not so much peaceful and primitive ones, but perhaps in a lot of respects superior ones (if one wants to cling to progressionist language…).

Tempels (1906-1977) was a Belgian Franciscan missionary who worked in what was then called Belgian Congo

Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was an important paleontologist and a Jesuit.

Claude Lévi- Strauss (1908-2009) was a cultural anthropologist who introduced structuralism as a method of research in his field.

Norman Lewis (1908-2003) was a novelist and travel writer, who wrote some groundbreaking journalistic reports on the genocidal activities under which the Amazonian Indians suffered.

Books mentioned are, chronologically:

Placide Tempels, Bantu Philosophy, originally published in Dutch in 1946.

Teilhard de Chardin The Phenomenon of Man, originally published in French in 1955.

Claude Lévi-Strauss The Savage Mind, originally published in French in 1962.

Norman Lewis The Missionaries, originally published in 1988.

  1. Lee said:

    Fascinating stuff! Thanks for this great vignette on contrasting views of anthropology.

    Based on my reading of Emanuel Swedenborg, I have long thought that early “primitive” humans, while outwardly simple, likely had a more advanced spiritual development than most humans today. The picture Swedenborg presents is of people who outwardly are simple and unsophisticated, but who have fairly open access to the spiritual world, and spiritual enlightenment from that source. Due to this periodic inner vision, when they observed the phenomena of nature around them, they perceived deeper spiritual and psychological realities as embodied in those natural objects (animals, trees, rocks, etc.) and events.

    Of course, in the 18th century, when Swedenborg Swedenborg did his writing, there was little by way of scientific study of early humanity. He mostly had the classical schema of the Ages of Man (Golden Age, Silver Age, etc.) to draw on, and a smattering of more contemporary thought without the benefit of any well-developed studies as of yet. However, I find it fascinating that in today’s “scientific” age there is a resurgence of thought that attributes a more advanced, spiritual outlook to early humans–who may have looked primitive outwardly, but who had a rich spiritual life embodied in their life of harmony with their natural surroundings and their ecosystem.

    Swedenborg portrays the angels of the highest heaven, most of whom he says were from the early ages of humankind, as living simply in tents, without any of the trappings of modern civilization, and in the highest heavens, without even the “benefit” of clothing. Though many angels of the lower heavens do live in cities with advanced technology, the higher up you go in heaven, the simpler it gets outwardly, while the wiser, more intelligent, and more perceptive the angels get. These higher angers are also much more powerful than the angels of the lower heavens. It’s as though everything we humans are now attempting to achieve with technology by way of human intercommunication and development of knowledge and intelligence, these higher angels achieve effortlessly. All of our “technological” capabilities are incorporated directly and seamlessly into the “operating system” of their part of the spiritual world, without the need for external mechanisms to achieve them.

    An interesting parallel to this is a common theme in science fiction, in which advanced races of beings may seem deceptively simple, unsophisticated, and weak to technologically advanced visitors, whereas in fact they have advanced capabilities to directly control their environment and everything in it through the exercise of their minds. One classic example of this theme is an episode from season 1 of the original “Star Trek” series, called “Errand of Mercy,” which I recently looked up and watched in connection with a talk I am preparing for delivery in August.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking piece!

    • A fascinating comment, Lee. Thanks for that, as I am not so much at home in Swedenborg yet as you are. His insights are very interesting. I want to add one thing, though – that these are not just early people, but some tiny amounts of them are still living on our globe, although they are losing their culture rapidly, due to mining and deforestation, not only in South America, but also in Malaysia, Indonesia, Siberia, etc. There has been a kind of war on them since the advent of the modern way of life – and it is important, I think, to think about how we can empower them in their struggle to retain some of their wisdom and way of life, and also to learn from them.

      • Lee said:

        A very good point. This is not only history; it is also current events.

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